These special employees are pouring their hearts into the coffee they serve

A special coffee bar opens in Modesto

A coffee bar that employs developmentally disabled staffers opens near the Modesto Junior College West Campus.
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A coffee bar that employs developmentally disabled staffers opens near the Modesto Junior College West Campus.

Want to try the newest coffee spot in Modesto? Just sign in and you’ll be buzzed through.

Sounds exclusive, but it’s just that the Whole Latte Cafe opened Tuesday behind the security door within the Valley Mountain Regional Center at 1820 Blue Gum Ave.

The cafe is a project of Cole Vocational Services, which provides day programs and employment services to adults with intellectual and developmental disabilities. It’s open weekdays from 8:30 a.m. to 1 p.m. and offers a menu of hot and iced drinks, frappes, pastries and more. The cafe serve products from Modesto’s Milone Coffee & Tea.

Customers in these early weeks will need to be patient as the cafe employees learn to make the drinks, run the register and other ropes of the business. That makes nonprofit Valley Mountain the perfect place to open, because its employees serve the developmentally disabled and send clients to Cole Vocational.

Ten Cole clients have been tapped to run the cafe, under the supervision of CVS staff. Opening-day employees Tuesday were Elizabeth Martinez and Brianna Clawson, supervised by Courtney Ward. Stronger employees, those who can work a little more independently, will start as baristas, CVS job developer Yessi Victoria said. Those working the register will get more supervision as they navigate the extensive menu and make change.

Tuesday, Clawson was the barista. “Brianna has been doing great,” Victoria said of Clawson’s work under CVS. “She has expressed that her ultimate goal is to work for Disney. I told her she’s getting out there, being more social, so to keep working on her social skills. She’s come a long way from working at janitorial to becoming a job coach to her peers, and now being a barista.”

Between making drinks, Clawson said the day was fun and going well. “I hope to learn so I can get a real job in the community,” she said. She confirmed that working for Disneyland is her dream job — “probably work in one of the stores down there.”

Training Whole Latte Cafe workers to find jobs in the community, thus opening cafe positions to other clients, is one of CVS’ goals. Another is to find the cafe a more visible home outside the walls of VMRC, perhaps as early as a year from now, Victoria said.

To prepare cafe staff for their next spots in the job world, she said, they are taught guidelines for calling in sick, requesting time off and following other typical workplace procedures.

“We are treating them as regular employees,” Victoria said. “So, for example, if they arrive late, we have to talk about it not being acceptable, that they have to call to let the supervisor know. We have to teach them that there will be consequences for their actions and, just like any other individual, they will be held accountable.”

Whole Latte Cafe was welcomed into the Modesto Chamber of Commerce in a ribbon cutting Monday. Speaking outside VMRC, chamber President and CEO Cecil Russell commented that there may be nothing more fulfilling to a person with intellectual disabilities than to have a job and the responsibilities that come with it.

He spoke as the father of a daughter who has been in day programs for about 30 years and “has been fortunate in her life to have a couple of jobs.” Right out of high school, she was employed by now-defunct Longs Drugs, and for 10 years now she’s been working for Brenden Theatres, Russell said.

His daughter is in a program of OpenDoor Services, which launched in Stockton in January 2002 and opened a Modesto office three months later. It serves the developmentally disabled with employment training, behavior management and community integration.

Perhaps the best-known Modesto-area provider of services to the developmentally disabled is Howard Training Center, which began more than 65 years ago. Today, Executive Director Carla Strong said, it has about 250 “differently abled” — a term she learned from a mother and prefers to use over “disabled” — adults in 10 different programs. The clients include people with physical, emotional and cognitive challenges, she said.

In HTC’s various work programs are about 110, people, she said. “If you’ve ever stopped at the rest stops in Westley on I-5 or in Turlock on Highway 99, all the landscape and restroom maintenance, seven days a week, is done by Howard Training Center crews,” she said as an example.

In the city of Ceres, the landscaping at rights of way, overpasses, bike paths and three parks is maintained by HTC crews. Clients also have found employment at places including Home Depot, Trader Joe’s, McDonald’s, CSU Stanislaus and Industrial Electrical Co.

They also staff a 4,000-square-foot commercial kitchen that provides two to three meals a day for mental health facilities in Stanislaus and San Joaquin counties.

“The goal behind all of this,” Strong said, “is to give individuals the skills they need to get their own jobs.”